I’m Writing Less, Doing More (Food Porn)

23 03 2014

I haven’t been doing much creative writing lately (unless you count recipe development) because I’ve been cooking.

Cooking at home, making quick dishes that use what I have on hand.

Cooking at work for members of the Cape Fear Food & Wine Club for various cooking classes and events.

I even cooked for friends recently, laying out a buffet of finger foods for their daughter’s Baby Shower – it was how I spent my “day off.”

Yesterday’s “No-Tomato Italian” cooking class menu was particularly tasty.  Italians love tomatoes, but they don’t eat them at every meal or every day – there is a whole country of good eating that we Americans often overlook in favor of pasta and tomatoes when thinking of Italy.  I think the best meals are the ones where the focus is on quality ingredients prepared in a minimalist fashion, which is exactly what yesterday’s class was all about.  The menu was Melon & Prosciutto Salad with Blood Orange & Shallot Vinaigrette, Lemon Oregano Roast Chicken with Parmesan Polenta and Balsamic Grilled Onions, and a delicious Orange Olive Oil Cake with jarred Peaches.  One of the students recently went to Italy and said that my recipes transported her back to that trip.  Frankly, that’s the most flattering thing anyone could say about my food.

Of course, I failed to get any pictures.  As a marketing manager, I suck.  As a cook, instructor, merchandiser, writer, and General Manager I do a pretty good job.  Perhaps its all those other responsibilities that interfere with my being better at marketing and social media – I just have too much on my plate.  How can you worry about pictures when you are feeding, educating, and entertaining guests?  The person in front of me is always my focus, and I never seem to get back to all those potential guests and customers out there in cyberspace.  There’s just not enough time.

So perhaps this little picture book of a handful of the food I have created lately will encourage my local readers to stop into The Seasoned Gourmet to say hey, or to join the Cape Fear Food & Wine Club to take some classes with me and taste my food themselves or learn to make it.  If nothing else, it will serve to inform you all that I am not gone, just busy doing rather than writing.

If you’d like any of the recipes for the tasty food shown here, just ask and ye shall receive!

Happy eating!

 





Battle Sriracha Cha!: Kirsten’s Curry Steals the Show

4 02 2014

I struggled with how to approach this dispatch, especially since I have a little friendly competition of sorts from my new friend Cole Dittmer of the Lumina News.  While we are not being judged for our literary prowess – or at least I’m not (I don’t have an editor and I’m not being paid), we are both writing articles about tonight’s festivities at the regional cooking competition Fire on the Dock, part of the Competition Dining series here in North Carolina.  Our articles are both behind-the-scenes looks at the competition, and to be fair to the competitors we divided our efforts.  Cole’s work will focus on Chef Katie Carter and the team from Olive Café and my article concentrates on Chef Kirsten Mitchell and Team 1900 Restaurant & Lounge.

I am sure that Cole’s article will be professional and politically correct and studded with beautiful photography and the epitome of ethical journalism.  I thought about trying to emulate that style myself, or writing another seemingly endless blow-by-blow like I did last year.  Frankly, I am not happy with either of those approaches.  So I’m just going to do what I want here and tell you about the food.  I am all about the food, my neighbors, and all things North Carolina.

I want to tell you about some exciting NC products and innovations being featured at the Competition Dining events (like the brand new Sriracha Cha! sauce from the makers of Texas Pete and some of the wines), but it will have to wait for another post as it is now past 1:00am and I have my own cooking to do in the morning.  I need sleep and you need to know about the well-deserved win experienced by the team from 1900 Restaurant & Lounge tonight.

This was the 7th event I have attended in three years, and the 2nd at which I have foregone voting in favor of full access behind the scenes.  For sheer fun, nothing can compare to being in the kitchen with Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern – last year’s winner of Fire on the Dock.  Gerry is a perpetually happy guy whose glass is always full and his joie de vivre is contagious.  Today’s kitchen was subdued by comparison, but the food was anything but muted.  Today was all about watching a hard-working woman have a well-deserved moment of success and recognition.

For third-generation-chef Kirsten Mitchell, it all came together on the plate today.  Kirsten didn’t just do well tonight, she rocked it.  I had a good feeling about the outcome from the first 20 minutes after learning the secret ingredient, when I sat and listened as she and her team developed their menu.  Like a good leader, she listened to her crew and considered their ideas.  Then she got out her pen and wrote the menu without hesitation.  She had some ideas in reserve in the event that certain ingredients weren’t available, but she went with her gut and was decisive.  Indecision is a leading cause of flops in these battles, so I was relieved to see her charge ahead.  Cut throat.  You go, girl!

Like most all of these events, this one was not without its ups and downs.  New equipment was available tonight that was not offered at prior competitions, courtesy of Denver Restaurant Equipment Company.  Kirsten homed in on the immersion circulator immediately, creating the first sous vide dish in Fire on the Dock History with huge success (Cha! Marinated Lamb Loin).  Her introduction to the awesome power of the Vitamix machine made for a colorful swath of green curry sauce on the wall a la Jackson Pollock.  Old equipment failed to function properly, including an oven that was, oh, about 100 degrees too hot for pound cake – fortunately, there was time to bake again.

At one point, Team 1900 broke out in song, which I learned is a regular occurrence in their restaurant kitchen.  I am going to have to walk across the parking lot more often so I have someone to sing with, and also to use their fryer to make some of the awesome skin-on plantain chips that I learned from Kirsten tonight.  I have had lots of tostones, and made them a few times myself.  I’ve even had them in Puerto Rico and Jamaica where plantains grow.  But I have never had a deep fried plantain chip with the skin on like Kirsten made tonight – sliced lengthwise on a mandolin and fried immediately, adorned only with a touch of salt.  I love it when Kirsten’s Bahamian upbringing influences her cooking – that’s when her food is at its best.

Cha Lamb Despite the North Carolina ingredients, her entrée tonight had the Caribbean written all over it with this show-stealing, vote-catching, competition-crushing, runaway hit:  Texas Pete Sriracha Cha! Marinated Lamb Loin Sous Vide served with Green Curry “Mofongo” (roasted sweet potato & parsnip mash), and garnished with a Plantain Chip and Sautéed Brunoise of Peppers.  That’s what I’m talking about, Kirsten.  Mm. Mm. Mm.

The Collard Soup was genius; it never occurred to me to make a pureed soup from collard greens.  I thought eating them raw in a salad was stepping out of the box.  Ha!  The tasso ham bits and all that jazz was nice, but the soup was awesome by itself. Let me know when you have a pot of that on the stove and I will definitely Cha Collard Soupmake the 100 yard trek across the parking lot.  I’ll even bring the bacon.

I have mixed feelings about the dessert.  Dessert is tough for a lot of chefs; that’s why there is a specialty called ‘pastry chef.’  It’s almost not fair to judge these chefs by dessert if they don’t have a Rebeca Alvarado Paredes on their team.  To make it and possibly not do it well is a risk; to skip it and go with three savory dishes is also a risk.  So most teams go sweet and take their chances.  Kirsten has had her butt handed to her over dessert in this competition in battles past.  But she persevered tonight and had a pretty solid showing with her homage to Gerry Fong’s winning penchant for things in sets of three.  The screen might have said Chocolate Cha! Torte, Almond Cha! Pound Cake, Blackberry Mousse, Chai Cha! Caramel Sauce, but we called it “The Fong Trifecta.”  And it worked.

Cha DessertSo here’s to Chef Kirsten Mitchell, who I am proud to call my friend.  Congratulations!

If you would like to get to know Kirsten up close and personal, join the Club and attend one of her cooking classes with the Cape Fear Food & Wine Club hosted by The Seasoned Gourmet.  She’s not just a great chef, but a natural instructor who loves sharing her passion for food with others.

Heard in the kitchen today:

Chef Mitchell, upon realizing that the home-sized immersion blenders provided were just a wee tad small for her commercial stock pot full of soup, “These things suck.”

Scott Padrick, sous chef:  “Chef – is that enough brunoise?” Chef Mitchell:  “Just keep going.”

Zack Zaytoun, cook:  “Where is that big mixer?”  The Kitchen Chorus: “Downstairs.”

“Hot sauce is my favorite thing in the whole world.” – Chef Kirsten Mitchell

Kirsten Team





Research: Pho & Geneology – Can You Help Find Thu Thi Vo?

24 01 2014

As I was preparing for my Vietnamese Pho Cooking Class tomorrow, I have read a lot of recipes, blog posts, historical accountings, and other articles.  It was certainly a reminder that not all of the recipes you find on the internet are tested or tasty; I’ve been cooking long enough that I can look at some of them and just know it isn’t going to work.  After consuming a well-cited article on Wikipedia for the historical background, I settled in for an educated comparison of recipes.  The fat rose to the top of the stock pot pretty quick when I read Andrea Nguyen’s recipe.  I will follow her method, as I have found that in simple dishes such as this the method and ingredients make all the difference.

I have, of course, heard of this accomplished cook and author before.  I decided to explore her blog while I was there, and among the recent posts I found this one.  It’s the story of Thu Thi Vo, or rather the story of her brother, Minh Hung Vo, who has been looking for her with extremely limited resources for over 2 decades.  You can read the post for yourself, and I hope you will, to garner more details.  Long story short, Thu Thi married an American GI and immigrated to the States.  Brother and sister corresponded for some time, then Minh moved and never heard from his sister again.  The Vietnamese postal system not being quiet as modern and efficient as ours, his sister may have continued writing but nothing more was received by Minh.

Thu Thi Vo

Thu Thi Vo

There is a lot we don’t know for certain – birth dates, married names, children’s names, etc.  But there is certainly enough to narrow this search with all of the electronic records now at our disposal.  Being an armchair geneology researcher for my own family, I feel certain there are at least Census records that would point toward other family members.  I think of this as an old man’s final wish; Minh just wants to know what happened to his beloved sister.

Andrea is a genuinely kind person for taking time to listen to this man’s story and to try to help him.  Some of her readers have already started digging and uncovered possible leads from the comfort of their living rooms.  Perhaps you, too, can join this effort; a simple re-posting of this information with reference back to Andrea’s article would be a big help.  Word of mouth is still the best way to find anything, or anyone.

Meanwhile, I am off to pick up my grass fed beef shanks and get busy following Andrea’s method for my Pho broth.  I will follow up with the results.  Thank you for reading, and for helping a global neighbor.





The Chef, The Farmer, and You

7 01 2014

As I was driving to work today, I felt all warm inside despite the frigid temperature outside.  I love this time of year, when Wilmington is her most authentic self.  In these months of cold air and short daylight hours, my beloved city is a true Southern town.  The summer people are gone, the holidays are over, I have tied my last Christmas bow and counted the widgits in the store for the tax man who, like death, inevitably comes.  The cooking class schedule for the next season is set, my menus are prepared, my recipes are being slowly tested in my spare time, and I actually have spare time.  I can carefully write a blog post that is something other than a rant.  This is the life!

BeachIt’s slower here in the winter, more like a Southern town is supposed to be.  I can get to work in five minutes or less.  I can get over the drawbridge to Wrightsville Beach without slamming on my brakes, despite the construction.  I can make the right turn onto Keel Street in front of Redix without fear that someone will ignore the opposing stop signs and T-bone my car.  I can leave my car running while I dash into the post office to check my mail – no one will steal it today.  My mail will actually be in the box by 9:30 am, something that only happens this time of year.  I can go to the beach without fighting for or paying for parking.  I can take my dog to the beach, though perhaps not today (brrr).  It’s just so Southern here this time of year, slow like molasses pouring from a jug and comfortable like a favorite pair of flip flops.

As a devout foodie, I have another reason to love this time of year.  I can get a table for dinner at most any restaurant on any day of any week without reservations.  If your life looks anything like mine, it is a rare day when you can plan ahead enough to make reservations.  There are just too many variables in a typical day for me to plan dinner more than an hour or two in advance, so now that the best restaurants are not jammed with visitors and things are slower in general, I can dine out again.

There is one place that reservations are always required, and it might just be the hottest ticket in this chilly seaside town.  I am so excited to attend at least one or two of these events again this year and really wish I could go to each and every one of them.  But I would need a much better paying job for that!  I love being able to sample the on-the-fly creations of a variety of chefs from an assortment of restaurants around the coastal area.  I love the friendly competitive spirit that I have witnessed behind the scenes.  I so love that nearly all the ingredients used to create these meals is created, grown, or raised here in North Carolina.

What place am I talking about?  Fire on the Dock, of course!  This local arm of a statewide Competition Dining series has been firing up the coastal area for three years now, and I truly look forward to it every year.  I enjoy these events so much that I’m a teensy bit jealous that I didn’t think of it myself.  But if I had, I doubt I could have actually breathed life into quite as successfully as Jimmy Crippen has done.  I can only imagine how tired his arms got swimming up that stream of transforming his local cooking event in Blowing Rock into a series of events across North Carolina, culminating in a finale each year in, where else, the state capital of Raleigh.

BluewaterI am headed over to Bluewater, the hosts of these fantastic events, for the Media Day event for the kick off of Fire on the Dock 2014 this afternoon.  I will be tweeting the competitor’s names as they are announced, and I will update you tomorrow with a little who’s who post.  Stay tuned!

Get ready to experience great local food cooked by energetic local chefs in an Iron Chef-style competition where you are the judge.  If you are a foodie like me, you are guaranteed to have a blast.  It’s all about The Chef, The Farmer, and You!





What the Pho? A Reality Check for the Good Stuff

29 12 2013

Whether we are actively participating in it or merely watching from the sidelines, life does indeed march on.  There were at least fifteen years that I felt like life was marching on without me, that I was missing everything, that others were having wonderful experiences and that I was excluded.  I had thoughts that I was destined to misery because I didn’t deserve anything better, that somehow I just wasn’t worthy of the good stuff.  It seemed like everyone else had happy relationships, good jobs, lots of friends, fun hobbies at which they excelled; you name it, they had it and I didn’t and that’s because they were better than me.  I got what I got because I didn’t deserve the good stuff.  That kind of a funk goes by a lot of names – depression, grief, and addiction, just to name a few – but I have come to think of it as the darkness before the light.  That’s how it played out in my life.

A set of designer circumstances made just for me led me out of that period of my life.   I encountered other people who helped me understand that I was battling a phenomenon based on selfishness and fear; I wanted things to be the way I wanted them, and I was unwilling to accept any other outcome.  I didn’t know what would happen if things didn’t go my way, but I was convinced it wouldn’t be good.  This kept me on a proverbial merry-go-round of self-pity, anger, and frustration for a very long time.  I was so caught up in having things my way that I could not appreciate things as they actually were.  Reality didn’t stand a chance with me; I was totally focused on how things “should” be.  I missed a lot of opportunities wishing for things to be different, wanting circumstances to be as I envisioned them.

As it turns out, my mother was in a similar place for almost the exact same period.  I didn’t realize the parallels in our situations until she recently found her way out of her own funk.  I can’t help but wonder if our circumstances were related, and there is certainly some history that would indicate they were linked despite our relative estrangement during that time. For now I will live that question and not worry about the answer.  What matters is that we both found our way out.

I now possess faith in a power that influences the circumstances around me.  Without getting into it too deep, I think of it as a universal life force.  For many, a belief in a well-defined Deity and the practice of a religion provides this same structure upon which I have come to rely.  It’s all good; whatever gets you past thinking that you are the center of the universe is all that matters.  Being plugged in, connected, a part of something bigger than myself was and is the key to leaving that funk behind.  Awareness of others and their struggles is essential to me; I receive through giving.  Believing I have a purpose and can contribute to the lives of others in a myriad of ways is what saved me from myself-destructive path. I now serve as a mentor to others, and the gratitude and humility that comes with that process is its own reward; indeed, it is the key to my continued happiness and peace.

I barely remember what it was like to pine after all the stuff that supposedly marks success in our modern world.  The nice house, the fancy car, the private schools for the kids, the latest electronic gadgets, the wildest vacations to the most exotic places; this list could go on indefinitely.  I had most of it at some point, and I was miserable.  Insert your own desires into that list and then ask yourself these questions:

What if success is not really about any of that?

What if all your possessions fit into the back of a pick-up truck?

What if that fulfillment you are seeking doesn’t come when you get all the stuff and achieve all the goals?

What if all that really matters is this moment right now?

Who is with you right this moment and what are you doing?  Pay attention to the moment at hand.  Be with who you are with right now, not who you think you want to be with.  What is happening around you at this moment? Maybe all the fulfillment and blessings you seek are right here, right now.

I have come to think of every moment as THE moment to which I should pay attention, and when it’s done, I should pay attention to the next one.  Right now, I’m thinking about how satisfied I am with my life.  I don’t have much of anything on that success list from above anymore, but I feel more successful than ever before.  I feel valued, worthy, good enough, deserving of the peace and satisfaction I am experiencing in my life.  Everything is just fine the way it is, despite it not being how I imagined.

I know how to listen to people and really hear them, and often how to respond in a helpful way.  I know how to read and really comprehend, to learn.  I know how to be productive at work and stay focused on the immediate tasks, not concerning myself with tomorrow’s tasks.  My mother, who was waiting to die alone in her apartment for 15+ years, is now healthy and happy with new friends in a safe, cozy living environment.  My daughter just moved 1,000 miles closer to me this month, so the odds of seeing her and my grandson more often are greatly increased.  I love my job, even though the business I work for struggles and my pay is below average.  I learned the basics of pottery making recently, something I’ve wanted to do for 7 years or so.  My bills are paid.  I have a cozy apartment, and two small dogs that I adore. I have a reliable automobile.  I have a handful of friends and family with whom I have close relationships that I deeply value, and a variety of acquaintances with whom I have casual relationships for which I am grateful.  I am rich in spirit.  I am fulfilled. Reality does not suck.  I have the good stuff.

Lest you think its all sunshine and sprinkles over here, I still have health issues and other unpleasantness to deal with – who doesn’t?  That’s real living.  A few months ago I got sick and had increasingly more severe abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea over the course of several weeks.  I’ve had a CT Scan at the emergency room, though I have not had the opportunity to follow up with a GI doctor because my primary care doc thinks I just had a virus and won’t give me a referral.  I am a disabled veteran and patient at the Veteran’s Administration and do not have private health insurance, so I had to take matters into my own hands and find solutions for myself that didn’t require a so-called professional.

So I don’t have a diagnosis, though I do know a few things that it isn’t.  I have come to think of it as a sensitive gut.  OK, let’s say wildly sensitive. When desperation led me to eliminating nearly everything from my diet and trying to find something, anything that I could eat without agony, my current journey began.  I started introducing one new food item at a time (starting with potatoes), waiting a day for the outcome, and making a list of do’s and don’ts.  I was off the sofa and back to work within a couple days of starting this minimalist approach.  I am no longer able to eat dairy products, legumes, or grains of any kind.  Most veggies are fine, though I have to be careful with raw greens and cruciferous veggies as they cause very painful ‘inflation’ if I eat more than a small amount at once.  Packaged anything is probably not OK because dairy and wheat are used in most all packaged foods.  To say that I am now a meat and potatoes girl isn’t really a stretch.  Fruits, nuts, and most seafood seem to work for me also, though apples and shrimp have caused some mild problems recently.  It’s sort of a Paleolithic diet, but not strictly that either.  It’s whatever my gut says.  That’s how I make my dietary decisions now.

Now when I say ‘unable to eat’ these things, I don’t mean like a classic allergy – swelling throat, rash, imminent death.  I mean if I eat them, I will find myself writhing on the sofa in pain within 12-24 hours between my runs to the bathroom for, well, the runs.  Is it life threatening?  I guess not.  But when you can’t leave the house because you can’t take the toilet with you, and you can’t stand up straight because of the pain, it’s pretty hard to live normally.  The worst of it is the pain, which 800mgs of ibuprofen three times a day doesn’t even touch.  The ER doctor offered me narcotics, but really?  I need a solution, not a chemical Band Aid (which, I might add, has the unfortunate side effect of causing constipation.  What was he thinking? But let’s not go there.)

As I write this now, I am experiencing some minor pain and wondering what I ate yesterday that might be the culprit.  Such is my new life.  For a foodie like me, this whole scenario is a nightmare that has me saying ‘What the Pho?’  I am now making food for others that I cannot eat; teaching people to cook things that I can no longer enjoy; and soon to be once again judging the culinary creations of others at a local cooking competition during which I may not be able to taste more than a small bite of each dish lest I suffer the consequences.  I don’t know at this moment if this is my new ‘normal’, or if some looming gastrointestinal crisis will force me to go back to the doctor that thought I merely had ‘viral gastroenteritis’ three months ago and beg him to help me (when what I really want to do is tell him to go screw himself).  The whole thing is a bit unnerving, to be honest.  I mean, how does one go from eating anything without issue to looking at all food as a potential source of agony in just a few months? Can diet alone solve my problems, or is there something else going on that will eventually have to be identified and addressed?

I don’t have all the answers.  For the moment, I have found some working solutions down the clean eating, Paleo, real food road.  They may or may not turn out to be lasting.  Whether you have GI issues like me or not, this flavorful spin on a Vietnamese classic that I like to call “Faux Pho” is a real-food flavorful dish with a variety of textures (by the way, Pho is pronounced ‘fuh’).  It helps me not feel deprived as I think of the bread-and-cheese-laden diet of my past with fondness.  Use any ground meat you like, but the organic grass-fed bison was really delish.  That this dish happens to be gluten, grain, and dairy-free is just a bonus.

Until next time, keep it real, people.

Quick Faux PhoIMG_2423

For the Meatballs:

½ pound Ground Bison or Beef, preferably grass fed organic

2 teaspoons Grey Salt (minerals are good for you!)

1 teaspoon freshly cracked Black Pepper

1 clove Garlic, minced or pressed

1 teaspoon Smoked Spanish Paprika

 

2 tablespoons Olive Oil

3 cloves Garlic, minced or pressed (or a teaspoon of Garlic Powder)

½ teaspoon ground Ginger

½ teaspoon Ground Cardamom

Grey Salt & Pepper, to taste

2 cups Organic Beef Stock (preferably homemade)

 

Cellophane Noodles (Rice Vermicelli) , soaked in hot water per package directions then drained

¼ cup Fresh Scallions sliced fine

½ cup Mung Bean Sprouts

Assorted fresh veggies, julienned (bell peppers, hot peppers, greens, etc – whatever you have)

Mix the meatball ingredients all together in a small bowl and shape into meatballs, or cook crumbled like you would for sloppy joes – whichever you prefer (it’s hard to eat crumbled meat with chopsticks, I’m just sayin’).  Preheat a deep skillet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and cook the meatballs or crumbled meat until cooked through.

Add the garlic, ginger, and cardamom and cook for a minute or two until the garlic is fragrant.  Add the beef stock, stir well, and bring to a simmer.  Cook for 5 minutes to infuse flavor.

Place your prepared rice noodles in a bowl (or two bowls if you are sharing).  Add the scallions, sprouts, and other veggies to the bowl.  Pluck a few meatballs from the pan and add them to the bowl, then ladle in as much broth as you desire.

Using your weapon of choice (spoon or chopsticks), enjoy.  I like to drink the remaining broth right from the bowl.

Phun Phactiod:  Pho is usually enjoyed for breakfast in Vietnam!





The Debt Ceiling: The Case of the Empty Cash Box

16 10 2013

I thought about apologizing for writing about something other than food – again – as I have been in my last couple of posts.  But I decided against it.  That’s what a blog is; a place where anyone can write about what’s on their mind and put it out there for others to read.  So the choice is yours, my friends – read it or not.

I hear people say that they don’t vote because their vote doesn’t matter.  If I could string all those people together and take them to the poles, their votes would indeed matter.  I cannot effect National change with my ramblings on this blog, right?  After all, I’m just one little person in some obscure coastal town in North Carolina who spends her days surrounded by all things kitchen and food.  I mean, what could I possibly know about the complex inner-workings of our Government?  Why would I waste my time ranting about it here?

The answer is simple:  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”- Edmund Burke 

I sleep better at night when I have done what I can to contribute to the resolution of problems rather than the exacerbation of them, even if no one pays any attention to me at all.  When I have done the right thing, I rest easy.  The outcome of current Government fiascos is not up to me, but my own actions do indeed matter – they are an expression of my true character.  I am doing an insane amount of research and writing this blog post that has nothing to do with food because I am disturbed by what is going on in our Government and have no other outlet for my frustrations.  I can’t make them stop, at least not until election day rolls around again.  But I can make it known that I am not in agreement with the actions of our Government, and unlike Congress, I can point to documented reasons for my beliefs.  I don’t ever want anyone to think I was complicit in the ridiculous actions (or lack thereof) of our elected officials.  I am guilty of voting for the wrong people, perhaps.  When faced with a field of undesirables, what is one to do?  I will do better next time – if the choices are better.

By writing this post, I hope to spur some people to do their own research and stop believing the babble heard on television.  For all of our Government’s failings, they have done an excellent job of being transparent if you have the patience to dig through the volumes of paper they have generated to find the truth.  Here, I have done some of the digging for you.

Debt Ceiling:  The End of Life as We Know It?

So what the heck is our Federal Government obligated to pay, not obligated to pay, and just what is all this talk of the so-called “Debt Ceiling” about?  How much do we owe, and to whom, and what happens if we don’t pay it?

If I listen to the mainstream media outlets, they want me to believe that the debt ceiling not being increased will bring the Government to a complete standstill, and that the Republicans are to blame for not agreeing to the plan laid out by the Democrats.  Seems simple enough, right?  We all enjoy the relief that comes with having affixed blame somewhere.  But let’s dial this back a bit and understand what’s really going on, shall we?

The truth is that the National Debt Limit is a moving target set by Congress and changed on a regular basis.  For a very long time now, my entire lifetime plus most of my mother’s, Congress has been increasing the debt limit continuously.  Look at the history yourself – don’t take my word for it.  Increasing the debt limit directly implies two key things:  first, that we don’t have enough money to operate our Government as it presently exists; and second, that despite being broke, Congress intends to spend more money that they don’t have.  Indirectly, this implies that the money must come from somewhere to pay these bills.  (It helps in this moment to remember that our Government does not generate any revenue of its own; it merely collects taxes from those persons and entities that earn it through legitimate enterprise and labor.)

If we, as individuals, behave as Congress has and does with regard to debt, we would be in bankruptcy court within 6 months, forced to sell everything we own to pay our debts.  Then we would live with a decade or more of people being unwilling to lend us money of any amount.  Congress has been on this spending spree for decades, unimpeded by any negative consequences.  Imagine if you can that the National Debt is presently $16,747,411,584,091.53 – that’s nearly 17 trillion dollars.  Much of that debt – over $10 trillion dollars – is privately held (according to the US Office of Debt Management in March 2013).  Another $6 trillion of that debt is owned by foreign interests, about $1.5 trillion is backed by investment in Government Bonds & Securities (anyone with a mutual fund, pension plan, etc.), and a big chunk is owned by Banks and Insurance Companies (the same entities we bailed out a couple years ago), our States, and the Federal Government itself (yep, our Government can borrow from itself despite being broke).  Of interest to me is the amount of debt owned by holders of U.S. Savings Bonds – about $180 billion dollars.  Good for you if you have cashed yours in and put the money under your mattress.  You are going to need it.  But I digress.

So is crashing into the current debt ceiling going to cripple Government and change our way of life? Failure of Congress to reach an agreement on raising the debt limit will not completely cripple the Federal Government.  It will, however, take choices away from the lawmakers.  Their predecessors have made certain sections of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)positive,” and some of those positive or “statutory” sections of the United States Code (USC) have mandatory funding attached to them.  Things like National Defense (32 USC), The President (3 USC), Federal Elections (11 USC), Judiciary (28 USC), Veterans Benefits (38 USC), Highways (23 USC) and Transportation (49 USC) must be funded, though some sections of those regulations are not statutory and can be altered.  Other titles or sections in the USC, such as Public Health/Housing & Urban Development (42 USC), Employee’s Benefits (20 USC, which includes Social Security), Internal Revenue (26 USC, which includes Social Security Disability), Banks & Banking, Food & Drugs (21 USC), and Education (34 USC) are not statutory parts of our law and will be among the first to have funding withdrawn.  (You may observe here the distinction between statutory and non-statutory, as this is also the line along which Congress fights; they can’t change the statutory things so they fight over the non-statutory items and base their political campaigns on these matters as well).

It could easily be concluded that all of the non-statutory laws and programs that have been passed by Congress over the decades have served to cripple our Government’s ability to fund the statutory programs.  Our Congresses have historically written checks for their pet projects (non-statutory feel-good programs like public housing, public education, and farm subsidies – ironically called “pork” by the media) that have caused the checks written to our core National programs (Defense, Transportation, Veterans benefits) to bounce.  More borrowing was done to keep the checks from bouncing and ‘round we go, every year.

Personally, I hope the Republicans keep stonewalling and refuse to raise the debt limit under the proposed terms.  It isn’t that I agree with their plans, either; rather, I just want our Government to become solvent.  Continuing to write checks we can’t cash is not the way to solvency.  I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I don’t have too much paycheck left to sacrifice for the common good before I too will need public assistance to feed myself and pay my bills.

Heavy reliance on Government to provide basic needs does not work.  It’s expensive, and it is not sustainable.  History shows us many examples of this worldwide, and it is still on display in places like Cuba where they are struggling with how to allow private enterprise without giving up Government control.  Their Government promised to provide everything for the people, all of whom worked for the Government.  Realizing the error of their ways (being broke with no plan), the Cuban Government is now faced with the reality that they cannot provide everything for their people.  Many European countries are at a similar crossroads where their social ideals have gotten too expensive to sustain.  We are right behind them on the same track, and it won’t work for us either.  Dependency breeds laziness and, eventually, contempt.  Human beings don’t value things if they don’t have to work for them, and they are not inclined to work for them if they will be provided for them.  Moreover, our founders broke with England to avoid the very situation in which we now find ourselves – being heavily taxed with no real voice among the decision makers.  Frankly, I don’t think the so-called decision makers are really making decisions based on their consciences anymore; I think they are doing what the people with the money are telling them to do.

So yes, if this stalemate continues, additional programs will be shut down and many of us will be directly impacted by it.  The Government literally has to choose which programs to shut down temporarily to pay for essential (statutory) programs and services.  Who will make the call about what is essential and what isn’t?  It is largely written into law already in the US Code, where some Titles are statutory and must be funded.  Veteran’s Disability Compensation (VDC) and the Military are among those that must be funded; civilian Defense worker’s salaries and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) payments are not.  If there is any money left after the statutory obligations are paid, it will probably be up to the White House to decide who gets it.  I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.

Credit Ratings and Congress:  Hostages of the Monster They Created

Our financial system in this country is very complex; but I find that most of the complexity exists to camouflage the realities of the system.  At its core, it is not really all that complex.  The dirty little secret is this:  when you use private monies to fund public projects, the public administrators of the funded programs are unavoidably beholden to the lenders.  There is no way to avoid personal agendas when you borrow money.  Even your auto loan is subject to the whims of the organization from which you borrowed; there is undoubtedly language in your contract that allows them to call the loan at any moment, leaving you forced to pay the balance or return the vehicle.  Just look for it, I guarantee it is there, perhaps in some obscure paragraphs that do not seem applicable to you – bank legal jargon.  Most legitimate lenders have a corporate policy of not calling loans unnecessarily, but they have the option if circumstances should make it prudent for them.  If they decided to do so, they would not be the least bit concerned about you.  So it is with loans to our Government from private investors and foreign interests; Government is beholden to those interests and their agendas.  Do what we want or we will call the loan – that is the message that our lawmakers are hearing from investors.

So if you are thinking that this little situation we are in over the Debt Ceiling is just our elected officials behaving badly and fighting amongst themselves, think again.  The ‘lenders’ are undoubtedly on the phone with our Senator’s aides telling them what needs to happen to avoid them calling the loans, and reminding them of the unofficial terms under which the loans were originally given.

The very banks and insurance companies that were bailed out by the Government in 2008 under TARP are among the Government’s creditors now.  These banks have heavily invested in bonds and treasury notes in exchange for the bail outs.  Just as it has become difficult for private citizens to obtain loans under the stringent standards these lenders now apply, so too is it difficult for the Government to obtain loans.  Banks know better than any of us how great a risk our Federal Government is as a borrower.  Our lawmakers created this banking monster, and now they are worried that the banks will not fund them if they lose their AAA credit rating.  Read this speech by Secretary of the Treasury Lew last month and you will see what I am talking about.  He says they have already used up the reserve “cash box” funds and don’t have any “extraordinary measures” left to employ as of October 16th.  Guess what day it is today?

The debt ceiling has officially been reached.  The cash box is empty.

Filling the Empty Cash Box

There are essentially five ways that our country’s empty cash box can be refilled.

  • Domestic Loans – from Private Individuals, Private Corporations, and through additional Bond initiatives (Smart, rich people who want control of our Government)
  • Foreign Loans – China is chief among the possible lenders, and is already a key supporter of our Federal Government (Smart, rich, Foreign individuals and Governments who want control of our Government)
  • Corporate Taxes – Raising taxes for corporations, giving the largest corporations ‘exemptions’ to facilitate them providing loans so that the status quo can be maintained, leaving small companies to carry the burden and eventually close their doors
  • Income Taxes – Raising income taxes for individuals (you and me), and levying new fines (such as the fines for not obtaining health insurance, which is just a tax with another name)
  • Program Cuts – Reducing or eliminating non-essential Government programs to free up money to be used on essential (statutory) programs

In order to take any of these measures but the last, the debt limit must be raised.  This is the real argument in Washington; some of our legislators actually want to consider entering default and beginning to move toward solvency; most do not.

Raising the Debt Limit:  Inevitable?

Raising the debt limit allows Government to continue to operate as it is rather than cut programs.  It’s pretty clear Congress doesn’t want to cut programs; trying to fund new programs associated within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, aka Obama Care et al) is how we got to this point.  Existing programs were not fully funded when these additional measures were enacted; there never was a plan to pay for them other than to raid the cash box and hope for the best.

The non-essential programs that Government refuses to cut are the programs enacted to kiss the asses of the people who loaned them money before, and to chip away at our paychecks and personal liberties, thus exercising ever-increasing control over us.  Congress can’t cut those programs – those old loans might be called in by the previous investors, and where will that leave them?  In Barney.  Barney Rubble. Trouble!!!

There is no easy way out of this mess, certainly not if you are an elected official.  There is no way for Congress to avoid getting mud in their eye.  They are literally living with the consequences of their actions and the actions of those who went before them.  Problems of money, property, and prestige have come to bite them in the ass because they took loans from outsiders who expect favors in return.  That, my friends, is the bottom line.

Its spelled c-o-r-r-u-p-t-i-o-n.

The only real question facing our lawmakers right now is:  Whose ass will they kiss this time?

What would I do? I would do exactly what is supposed to be done:  fund the positive titles in the US Code (that’s why they are statutory – they are a priority) and start slashing all the non-essential people, places, and things.  I would start living within my means right now today (pay as you go, don’t buy what you can’t pay for immediately), and start working on a plan to keep it that way.  The alternative is a steady march toward bankruptcy, which will only serve to make us even more vulnerable to corruption and foreign interests down the road.

Suck it up Congress – do the right thing.  Your constituents might even have a little respect for you if you did.





Veterans Benefits & Social Security: Apples, Oranges, and Agendas

28 09 2013

For those of you who follow my blog to hear about area restaurants or get good recipes, this article will not be your cup of tea.  There is no food here, but there is plenty to chew on if you are concerned with the future of our country and issues like healthcare.  It’s a doozy, so my apologies in advance.  But if you have been in a social coma for 10 years like me, you will need the following lengthy road map to find your way back.  You have been warned.

Like a dog with a fresh bone, I’ve got this thing in my teeth now and I can’t let it go, because I can smell blood.  The blood I smell is that of myself and the dwindling number of military members and veterans, past and present, who are being offered up like lambs to the slaughter in the name of political agendas.  That blood is all over the hands of our elected officials, and I am outraged at the lies being told to get you to turn your heads away so you don’t see them washing it off.

If you want the truth, you often have to read between the lines.  I am an advocate of say what you mean and mean what you say.  But where our Government is concerned, that rarely ever happens.  So I am digging through enormous piles of propaganda to get at the truth about this issue of why I can’t seem to get seen by my VA doctor, why appointments are scheduled 3-5months out and then cancelled, and what this says about the future of everyone’s health care if a long-established system like the VA can’t function.  If you are interested in the truth, then come along with me on a walk through the landfill that is Washington politics and discover a small piece of the truth regarding health care, social security, and veterans benefits.  I hope it will motivate you to question everything you hear and seek the truth.

Some of my readers may be aware that I am a Veteran; I served 22 combined years on active duty and in the reserves of the United States Army.  Over the years, I was assigned at the smallest of organizations at the bottom of the proverbial food chain as well as places much closer to the top of the heap.  My service to this country was, at once, fulfilling and frustrating.  The view from my various posts always yielded a unique perspective that most civilians never see into the inner-workings of our government; even some of my fellow soldiers missed the larger picture because they were distracted by what was going on at their level.  Being in human resources, I often spotted trends before they were publicly acknowledged.  When new policies and procedures changed the way assignments, deployments, awards, and promotions were handled, I knew that something was afoot.  Even more telling were the statistical reports we were often asked to compile – they had a way of illuminating the never-spoken questions that arose in secure conference rooms.  Late in my career, my work kept my face in regulations and Federal law a good deal, so much so that I was dubbed “the Google Queen” at my last assignment.  It’s a title I still wear proudly today.  I love digging for the truth.  (Can you believe Google has been around that long?  Oh, sorry, I digress.)

So as I was licking yet another psychological wound inflicted by the Veterans Administration yesterday vis-à-vis a long-awaited medical appointment that was cancelled without my knowledge, I put on my “Google Queen” vest and started digging.  Things are getting worse, not better, for me with regard to accessing my VA benefits as a Disabled Veteran (Priority 1, for those on the inside who know what that means).  Yet, to listen to the news one would think that all is well and the VA has fixed all their problems and veterans are being well cared for at this time.  Not in my neck of the woods they aren’t.  So what’s the truth behind the smoke and mirrors?  To understand the answer, you need to know the history.  So here it is:

Disability Compensation (Apples) vs. Disability Insurance (Oranges)

lawIn my opinion, the Federal government has been digging around for ways to cut Veterans Benefits while telling us via the media that they want to ensure us the best possible care and compensation.  Why do I think this?  I am following the money, and reading between the lines of the government’s own documents.  It’s not hard, really:  just ask yourself why the House Ways and Means Committee, via the Congressional Research Service, requested an analytical comparison of the Disability Benefits Available Under the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Veterans Disability Compensation (VDC) Programs, which was published on September 12, 2012.  While the report gives objective data regarding both programs and attempts to compare and contrast them, the nature of the comparison points to the unstated question that initiated the analysis.  To me, the report leads the reader to the conclusion that someone wanted to know if the VDC could be eliminated since veterans may also make claims under SSDI.

The report seems to assume that the programs offer the same benefits in its beginning, but later gets derailed when the analyst realizes that they are not the same at all.  Still, he tries to tell Congress what they want to hear by focusing on this key difference, as he sees it:  the VDC eligibility process does not examine an individual’s ability to work in making its determination, whereas SSDI is entirely based on an individual’s ability to work.  The analyst seems to be asking himself, shouldn’t they be the same?

If one merely skims this report, another key implication seems to be that veterans receiving VDC receive more money on average than those people drawing SSDI.  In table 1 of the report on page 12, the average monthly benefit of SSDI recipients is compared with the maximum monthly benefit available under VDC.  Is it just me, or is that a misleading comparison?  Can you hear the whining over at your house?  John Q. Public did not leave his family behind, get shot at, and lose his hearing due to repeated mortar attacks, but he wants to have the same benefits as those that did.  (In political circles, this approach is known as ‘spin.’)

If I can be so bold as to return to the original legislation that enacted these two wholly separate programs and understand the context in which they were created, I think the distinction between these programs becomes clear.

Apples:  Veterans Disability Compensation (VDC).  There is a portion of Federal law referred to as Title 38 of the United States Code (38 USC, for short) that governs Veteran’s Benefits.  It has been around for over 100 years.  The part of it that pertains to compensation for service-connected disabilities has remained essentially unchanged since the 1940’s when World War II veterans were returning; a few changes to acknowledge unforeseen illnesses from things such as Agent Orange have since been made.  This law was enacted to provide disability compensation for veterans that developed chronic illnesses or sustained injuries as a result of service to their country.  In other words, it was enacted to compensate veterans for their sacrifices made for all of us that would forever affect their quality of life.  It was not enacted to serve as compensation for an inability to work; many veterans who qualify for VDC still work full time and are productive members of society, though perhaps not in physically demanding occupations.  It was understood by our lawmakers at the time of its enactment that the difficult lifestyle and the horrors that veterans lived through were indeed a sacrifice, one that allowed the rest of you to go happily about your days in relative peace and safety.  The money for this program is a mandatory portion of the Federal budget that must be funded every year because that’s how the lawmakers wrote it down (no doubt to avoid the exact form of petty bickering taking place now – the proverbial ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ butting heads).  They believed the sacrifices of us few were totally deserving of compensation by you, the many.  But back then, most of them had served in the military.  Not so today.

How few are we?  During World War II, about 12% of the population served in the military.  As of 2013, less than 0.5% of Americans serve in the military.  The transition from conscript service (draft) to an all-volunteer force has been the largest contributor to this trend.  But that is even more reason to make sure veterans are cared for, since so few people are willing to step up to defend our country.  Without any safety net in the event of loss of life or limb, would you join the military?  And if no one does, who will defend us and our way of life?

The numbers of members of Congress with prior military service are very enlightening:  in 1975, 70% of our Federal legislators had served in the military; today it is about 20% (according to this article).   For a little more perspective, according to the US Census Bureau, there were about 216 million Americans in 1975; today, our population numbers over 316 million.  Why would our Congress try to take away our hard-earned benefits?  Well, most of them haven’t served in the military so they don’t understand what it really takes to defend this nation.

As long as we are talking numbers, how about this statistic:  There are presently about 23 million living veterans in our midst (according to the Department of Veterans Affairs), a number expected to steadily decline in the ensuing years.  Of those, only 3.21 million were recipients of VDC as of September 2011, or roughly 14%.  That’s a pretty low number considering the physical risks involved with military service.  I think it’s safe to say that 85% of veterans don’t receive any kind of compensation at all for their service, unless they continue to serve until they are retirement eligible.  (Many claims for VDC are stuck in a huge backlog at the VA, so the number may be slightly higher.  But that’s another article).

Oranges:  Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  The portion of Federal law that pertains to disability compensation for injured and ill workers who can no longer work as a result of their ailments is contained in 26 USC, also known as the Internal Revenue Code.  Social Security does not have a separate chapter of law like veterans benefits do; it is tied to the IRS.  Why? Because SSDI was designed to compensate workers who become unable to work due to illness or injury – and those illnesses and injuries do not necessarily have to be caused by on-the-job conditions (unlike VDC, where service-connection is the prime determining factor).  If you have heretofore been a productive member of society, carrying your own weight, and are suddenly unable to work because you are legitimately sick or injured, then our government has agreed to provide insurance payments to you so that you might have your needs met.  How much you receive in insurance payments is also directly related to how much you have paid into the fund through work in your life prior to becoming injured or ill.  We all pay into this pot of money through our paychecks via that little line on your paystub labeled FICA (and yes, even military members pay in, and are eligible to make claims under SSDI if they become unable to work due to illness or injury).  This is the same pot of money that is used to make monthly Social Security payments to those over 65, the amount of which is also based on how much they paid in through work over the years (or that their spouse did, in the case of widows and widowers – they get to choose).

SSDI is insurance, not special compensation.  You pay into the insurance fund, then you get to make claims to withdraw from it when and if you need it and meet the criteria.  Like any other insurance policy, when the cost of honoring claims exceeds the premiums (revenue from worker’s paycheck contributions), the rates go up so that the claims can be paid (except that Congress doesn’t want to raise these taxes again for fear you will throw them out).  Social Security is also not a mandatory part of the Federal budget like the VDC, which is why lawmakers are perpetually fighting over it.  But mostly, they are fighting because they created a monster called Social Security that is not fiscally sustainable.  They want to keep it and are willing to cut any and everything else to do so.  Why?  Well votes, of course.  They like the lifelong benefits that having spent even 2 years in Congress entitles them to – a check that they wrote for themselves and we all pay.

Apples and Oranges, Sliced:  Let’s look inside these claims to see if they really are the same, shall we?  What would you guess the top two ‘disabilities’ are for which people are being paid under SSDI as of 2011?  Well, let me tell you:  1) Musculoskeletal System and Connective Tissue Disorders, and 2) Mood Disorders.  I bet you are thinking those are probably the top two claims for VDC as well, right?  I mean, we see many young soldiers missing limbs on the news, and have heard a lot of talk about PTSD and its profound effect on those who suffer with it.  Well, don’t jump to any conclusions based on what you hear on TV.  The top two reasons for VDC claims are 1) Tinnitus and 2) Hearing Loss (both hearing-related disorders).  So contrary to what you have been led to believe by our politicians and the major media outlets, most veterans are claiming compensation for medical problems that prevent them from functioning in society, like not being able to hear.  That’s because, once you adapt to prosthesis and undergo some therapy for PTSD, you can still be a functioning member of the workforce, and veterans are generally not whiners.  They work through it and do what they have to do.  It seems like the general public could learn something from that, based on their 8.58 million claims of aches and pains and mood disorders.  Oh, sorry, I’m being judgmental.  My apologies if I hurt anyone’s feelings.

The bottom line here is that the VDC and SSDI are not the same and are not overlapping programs.  If you are still not convinced, do some more reading on your own.  For me, my research has led me to asking why this non-issue was ever made an issue, and what the larger implications might be.

Agendas.  I can spot an agenda at 20 paces.  I don’t need to be in the midst of a situation to have a good feel for what is really going on.  I have good instincts; I can just observe and get a pretty firm grasp of what’s up.  Actions (including body language) speak louder than words.  But since departing the military a decade ago, I have allowed myself to stop paying attention to what is going on around me unless it is right in front of me.  I took a much needed sabbatical from giving a damn about politics and global issues.  It seems that my benign neglect has caught up with me and hit me where I live, so once again I am digging for answers.

Agendas in politics can be harder to spot than those of your co-workers, as elected officials are highly adept at using smoke and mirror tactics to lead your attention away from the truth (and they usually have the help of their fellows who nod their heads and lend credibility to their lies).  I’m all about hiding the truth to save lives and do good; lies are sometimes necessary to keep the global peace or just to be kind to your spouse (Q: “Honey, does my butt look big in this dress?” A: “Not at all!”).  But I have no tolerance whatsoever for false pretenses the likes of which I am seeing in current discussions over health care, social security, and other so-called ‘entitlements’ for our citizens.

As of September 2011, there were 8.58 million people collecting SSDI.  That number is climbing far faster than VDC claims.  SSDI will serve to prematurely break the entire Social Security system unless changes are made, like, yesterday.

Instead of finding ways to fix the Social Security problem, Congress is looking to steal money from other places, like the VDC, to allow Social Security to continue in its present form.  This is the hidden agenda that was revealed to me when reading the aforementioned Congressional Research Service report.  It’s not in the report, it’s the obvious thing that is missing from the report that they didn’t dare put in writing; it’s the answer to, “Why did they compare these two totally different programs as if they were the same?”  Read it for yourself; you’ll see it.

If Congress will consider stripping benefits away from deserved Veterans, who took bullets for them and you, to retain constituent approval and keep their jobs, don’t you believe them for a minute when they say they are doing it all to take care of you, the American people.  I’m calling bullshit on that right here and now.  They are merely trying to save themselves.  You, my friends, are on your own.  Just like me.

No money for established VA health care system?  Then there is certainly no money for ObamaCare.  We’ll talk more about that later, but for now you might want to look into it and do a little butt saving of your own.  I’m just sayin’.

 








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